How to read and understand
Know Your Purpose
Everyone should have a purpose for their reading and think about how that purpose is being fulfilled during the actual reading. The advantage for remembering is that checking continuously for how the purpose is being fulfilled helps the reader to stay on task, to focus on the more relevant parts of the text, and to rehearse continuously as one reads. This also saves time and effort because relevant items are most attended.
Identifying the purpose should be easy if you freely choose what to read. Just ask yourself, “Why am I reading this?” If it is to be entertained or pass the time, then there is not much problem. But myriad other reasons could apply, such as:
- to understand a certain group of people, such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.
- to crystallize your political position, such as why a given government policy should be opposed.
- to develop an informed plan or proposal.
- to satisfy a requirement of an academic course or other assigned reading.
Many of us have readings assigned to us, as in a school environment. Or the boss may hand us a manual and say “Here. We need you to read this.” Whether the order comes from a teacher or boss, we need to ask, “What do you want me to learn from this?” In the absence of such guidance, you should still formulate your best guess about what you should learn and remember from the reading.
2) Skim First
Some reading tasks require no more than skimming. Proper skimming includes putting an emphasis on the headings, pictures, graphs, tables, and key paragraphs (which are usually at the beginning and the end). Depending on the purpose, you should slow down and read carefully only the parts that contribute to fulfilling the reading purpose.
Even material that has to be studied carefully should be skimmed first. The benefits of skimming first are that the skimming: 1) primes the memory, making it easier to remember when you read it the second time, 2) orients the thinking, helping you to know where the important content is in the document, 3) creates an overall sense and gestalt for the document, which in turn makes it easier to remember certain particulars.
Browsing on the Internet encourages people to skim read. The way content is handled on the Web is even causing writers to make wider use of Web devices, such as numbered or bulleted lists, sidebars, graphics, text boxes and sidebars. But the bad news is that the Web style makes it even harder to learn how to read in-depth; that is, the Web teaches us to skim, creating bad reading habits for in-depth reading.
3) Get the Mechanics Right
For in-depth reading, eyes need to move in a disciplined way. Skimming actually trains eyes to move without discipline. When you need to read carefully and remember the essence of large blocks of text, the eyes must snap from one fixation point to the next in left- to right-sequence. Moreover, the fixations should not be one individual letters or even single words, but rather on several words per fixation. There are reading-improvement machines that train the eyes to fixate properly, but few schools use them. I know from personal experience with such machines that they can increase reading speed markedly without a cost in lower comprehension. Poor readers who stumble along from word to word actually tend to have lower comprehension because their mind is preoccupied with recognizing the letters and their arrangement in each word.That is a main reason they can’t remember what they read. Countless times I have heard college students say, “I read that chapter three times, and I still can’t answer your questions.” When I ask thought-provoking questions about the material, they often can’t answer the questions because they can’t remember the meaning of what they read. Even with straightforward simple memorization questions, they often can’t remember, because their focus on the words themselves kept them from associating what their eyes saw with their own pre-existing knowledge and thus facilitating remembering. In short, to remember what you read, you have to think about what the words mean.